Remedial education is expensive and controversial -- but is it effective?
That's the question that two education researchers have attempted to answer based on an analysis of nearly 100,000 community college students in Florida. The scholars -- Juan Carlos Calcagno of the Community College Research Center, at Teachers College of Columbia University, and Bridget Long of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University -- have decidedly mixed results to report. There is some positive impact of remedial education, they found, but it is limited. Their study  has just been released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Florida is an ideal site for research on many education questions because the state has uniform requirements for community college students with regard to placement testing and remedial education -- and the state also collects considerable data on what happens to students as they progress through higher education.
In looking at the impact of remedial education, the study found that -- among those on the edge of needing remediation -- being assigned to remedial math and reading courses has the effect on average of increasing the number of credits completed and the odds that students will return for a second year. But while those are important factors, the report finds no evidence that remedial education increases the completion of college-level credits or of degree completion.
"The results suggest that the costs of remediation should be given careful consideration in light of the limited benefits," the authors write.
At the same time, however, they note that there are benefits to students and society of having people experience even one year of college, some of it remedial. Further, they note that if remedial education encourages early persistence, colleges may have the "opportunity to reach students with other types of programming and skill development" beyond that offered now. In terms of figuring out whether the trade-offs favor remedial programs, the authors say that there still isn't enough evidence in, but that their study points to the need for more detailed analysis.
"More work is needed on the effects of remediation relative to its costs," the authors say. The authors open their paper by noting that conservative estimates hold that public colleges spend $1 billion to $2 billion annually on remedial education -- and that level of cost is sure to attract more scrutiny.